A.J. Burnett pitches Pirates past Reds to take lead in NL Wild Card

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Pirates starter A.J. Burnett, who earlier today told the media he is still considering retiring after the 2013 season, turned in a gem against the division and Wild Card rival Reds. The Reds went ahead early on a Ryan Ludwick RBI single in the first inning and a Zack Cozart solo home run in the second. Pirates catcher Russell Martin launched a game-tying two-run homer in the bottom half of the second to knot the game at two apiece. In the sixth, the Pirates scored twice on a Marlon Byrd sacrifice fly and an opposite-field RBI single by Pedro Alvarez against lefty reliever Zach Duke.

Burnett settled down after the first two innings, holding the Reds scoreless in five consecutive innings. After completing the seventh, he had allowed just the two runs on four hits and three walks while striking out twelve. The outing marks Burnett’s season-high in strikeouts and the most he has logged in a game since August 27 against the Rangers when he was with the Yankees.

Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson teamed up for a scoreless eighth inning, with Wilson inducing a crucial inning-ending double play against Joey Votto. Jason Grilli made his first ninth-inning appearance since July 22, before he landed on the disabled list with a strained right flexor tendon. Ludwick led off with a single, but he was erased when Jay Bruce bounced into a 4-6-3 double play. Grilli got Cozart grounded out to shortstop to end the game, his 31st save of the season and his first July 21.

With the Cardinals defeating the Brewers, the Pirates remain two games back in the NL Central while the Reds drop to three games out. In the NL Wild Card, the Pirates take a one-game lead over the Reds for the first NL Wild Card slot. Though both teams are a sustained Nationals hot streak away from qualifying for both spots, the winner of the first Wild Card slot gets home field advantage in the one-game playoff.

James Paxton will “nerd out big-time” to stay healthy next year

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To the surprise of, well, very few, the Mariners didn’t make the cut for the postseason this year. While they threw their hats in the ring for a wild card berth, their pitching staff just couldn’t stay healthy, from the handful of pitchers who contracted season-ending injuries in spring training to Felix Hernandez‘s shoulder bursitis to structural damage in Hisashi Iwakuma‘s right shoulder. Left-hander James Paxton missed 79 days with a lingering head cold, strained left forearm and pectoral strain. Heading into the 2018 season, the lefty told MLB.com’s Greg Johns that he plans to “nerd out big-time” in order to prepare for a healthy, consistent run with the club.

So far, Johns reports, that entails a new diet and workout program, hot yoga sessions and blood testing. “I just think there’s more I can do,” Paxton said. “I haven’t done the blood testing before. Finding out if there’s something I don’t know about myself. It’s just about learning and trying to find what works for me.”

When healthy, the 28-year-old southpaw was lights-out for the Mariners. He helped stabilize the front end of the rotation with a 12-5 record in 24 starts and supplemented his efforts with a 2.98 ERA, 2.4 BB/9 and 10.3 SO/9 through 136 innings. Despite taking multiple trips to the disabled list, he built up 4.6 fWAR — the most wins above replacement he’s compiled in any season of his career to date. Had he not been felled by a pectoral injury in mid-August — one that came with a five-week trip to the disabled list — the club might have been been able to make a bigger push for the playoffs.

Of course, even if Paxton manages to stay healthy next season, the Mariners still have the rest of the rotation to worry about. They cycled through 17 starters in 2017 and tied the 2014 Rangers with 40 total pitchers over the course of the season. Per GM Jerry Dipoto, their top four starters (Paxton, Hernandez, Iwakuma, and Tommy John candidate Drew Smyly) only contributed 17% of total innings pitched, just a tad below the 40% average. Finding adequate big league arms and compensating for injured aces (both current and former) will be tough. Still, getting a healthy, dominant Paxton back on the mound for 30+ starts would be a huge get for the team — whether or not the postseason is in their future next year.